You've likely seen a the camouflage-clad street ambassadors in and around Civic Center and the Tenderloin, sometimes displaying the logo and nonprofit name Urban Alchemy. They are workers for a non-profit that is one of the biggest city contractors, moving people along who are committing quality-of-life offenses, reversing overdoses, picking up trash and needles, discouraging crime, and giving advice to wayward tourists.
Some will argue that Urban Alchemy's work on the streets, done largely by previously incarcerated individuals, isn't worth the $33 million in contracts that the city has awarded them. But the Chronicle's Heather Knight this week tries to cast an objective gaze on the nonprofit, and argues that, perhaps, there is enough good being done despite some criticisms that we should all appreciate it.
First, there are some self-reported figures: 134 overdoses reversed, 41,575 trash bags filled, and 78,494 needles safely cleaned up, and 2,010 responses to 311 calls in the last 12 months alone. Urban Alchemy also claims it has made 45,000 “de-escalation interventions,” intervening to stop fights or violence by the mentally ill; also, it says workers have made over 300,000 "inviting space interventions," which seem to be about quality-of-life stuff, like telling people not to urinate on a street, or telling people to quiet down if they're being loud.
One longtime Tenderloin neighborhood advocate and leader, Del Seymour, sings the praises of Urban Alchemy to the Chronicle, calling it an "an amazing project" and saying that he'll only park his car on blocks that he knows their workers patrol.
But there has been some bad press around Urban Alchemy too, like the former worker who was arrested for attempted murder earlier this year, and allegations that workers manning a sanctioned tent encampment in Sausalito were doing drugs with residents and sexually harassing women.
And there are downsides, like the fact that the non-profit's work ends when the workers' shifts end at 7 p.m. And one local shelter director suggests that the organization "is getting too big, too fast, without the accompanying investment in organizational infrastructure," which includes not providing adequate training to workers fresh out of prison.
Also, Knight took note on her own tour of the area at Eight Street and Mission, seeing that one side of the block which was part of Urban Alchemy's patrol area was totally clear of people, while there was vagrancy and drug use going on just across the street. "The contrast showed the big difference the team can make in its assignment to keep the area’s sidewalks safe and clean, but also that so-called solutions in a city grappling with a twin drug and homelessness crisis too often involve pushing the misery around," Knight writes.
Urban Alchemy's founder, Lena Miller, promises the Chronicle that an independent audit of their work by a team led by a local university is yet to come.
"Urban Alchemy is an important partner in our public safety strategies to make our neighborhoods more welcoming and safe for residents, workers, and visitors,” said Mayor London Breed in a statement to KRON4. “They work tirelessly every single day to serve the Tenderloin and Mid-Market communities while treating everyone with dignity and respect. Urban Alchemy is creating career pathways for people who are often counted out.”